Schools in the US tackle a post-pandemic problem: How to separate students from their cell phones

Schools have made accommodations for students who need their phones for health reasons, such as those with diabetes who monitor blood glucose through an app on their phones. — Photo by Sherise Van Dyk on Unsplash

When 16-year-old Dai'Juan Colton found out that he and his fellow Penn Hills High School students weren't going to have access to their cell phones during the day this school year, he immediately began texting friends in other districts.

"I was like, 'Y'all getting this in Chartiers?' and it was like, 'No.'"

His friends in East Allegheny said they weren't getting a new policy either. "I'm not going to lie," he said. "I was upset."

This school year, Penn Hills became one of the first schools in Western Pennsylvania to embark on a technology rollback to prevent students from using cell phones during the school day. The concept is spreading in other parts of the state and country, including nearly two dozen schools in the city of Philadelphia.

While phone use was a problem to some extent before Covid, the pandemic made it worse, said Penn Hills superintendent Nancy Hines.

"Once the kids had been at home for a portion of their school week, and then they came back on site, it was more obvious that they were heavily reliant on the phone," she said. "After Covid we saw that there was a lot more use — disrupting classrooms, more cyberbullying, kids were used to communicating back and forth with no filter."

Penn Hills paid about US$16 (RM73) per student for a device called a Yondr pouch, which stores the cell phone and magnetically locks it. Students must enter the building with their phones locked in the pouches and can only unlock them when they leave for the day.

"My sense is that there are fewer distractions," said Ms Hines, "fewer hands-on incidents."

A few other schools in Western Pennsylvania made the same choice this year that Penn Hills did, including Washington and Ringgold high schools in Washington County; Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 and Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 (University Prep).

At Obama, principal Yalonda Colbert estimated that she spent 80% of her time last school year dealing with drama created by phones.

"We wanted phones to stop being a negative piece in our school in terms of videotaping, verbal arguments, using the phone inappropriately," she said. "A lot of it was pranks, but pranks can lead to conflict."

A group of teachers approached her last year with concerns that phone use was out of control, asking about the feasibility of Yondr pouches. As Ms Colbert waited for approval on the pouches, Pittsburgh Obama started the school year with a low-tech substitute: bubble mailer envelopes to hold phones during the day.

The school was able to switch to the Yondr pouches in November. This school year, Ms. Colbert estimates that the amount of her time spent policing phones has dropped to about 10%.

"I can't say that it's a 100% fix but it has been a huge help," she said. "I haven't had to spend a lot of time investigating who put what up on social media and who did what first. The amount of time I spent on that, I couldn't get work done."

At Penn Hills High School, the students received the pouches at the beginning of the school year in August.

And so began a cat and mouse game where the students summoned every skill they'd ever break into their phone pouches.

"Kids are very savvy," said Ms Hines, the superintendent. "They are very creative."

The school district has seen it all when it comes to sidestepping the new system, including some students putting a dummy phone in the pouch and keeping their real phone accessible. To evade metal detectors catching the real phone, school board member Erin Vecchio said she has heard of students hiding it behind a belt buckle.

A school secretary showed a collection of broken phone pouches with the stitching undone at the bottom, where students would pull the phones out. One student had even added an adhesive strip to the cut section of the pouch so that it would appear to be closed.

Students figured out that if you bang the pouches against the wall at the right angle, they would pop open. At one point, some even found methods on YouTube to de-magnetise the pouches. "That was problematic," said Hines.

The Penn Hills district went to Yondr with their concerns and received new, upgraded pouches with better security that have been much tougher for the students to decipher.

"They are indestructible," said freshman Autumn Lyman of the new pouches.

"You gotta drill through them," laughed Dai'Juan.

Penn Hills has kept its policy strict, seizing any visible phones and keeping them in the office until a parent comes to retrieve them.

At Obama, the policy is a bit more lenient. Phones are supposed to be in the Yondr pouches but there is some leeway if students aren't abusing them, particularly at lunchtime.

"They still want to do TikTok dances and I've given them that space," said Ms Colton. "We don't want this to be overly punitive — we simply want students to make good choices."

At Washington High School, administrators aren't chasing kids into the bathroom to search for phones, said superintendent George Lammay. But the Yondr pouches have completely changed the culture of cell phones at the school.

"If they are waiting for a text, if they are texting, that distracts them," he said. "We were looking for a way for them to become more focused, more connected, and that's exactly what happened."

The policy at Washington High School also came at the request of teachers looking to change their classroom environment.

"We had kids answer their cell phones in class," said Mr Lammay. "Enough was enough."

The school saw not just educational benefits but positive social changes as well.

"What we saw at lunchtime was that the kids talked more to each other," he said.

At Obama, socialising without a phone has been a skill that some of the students — who came of age during the pandemic — have to be taught.

"A lot of these kids aren't able to just sit and chat," said Ms Colbert. "We're doing some of that social-emotional learning to restore, repair and cultivate that environment."

Much of the opposition to the cell phone policies has come from parents concerned about being able to reach their child in case of emergency. At Washington High School, safety concerns were were "the biggest obstacle we had to overcome," said Mr Lammay.

Kathy Pellegrino, the mother of two children currently at Obama and one recent graduate, understands the educational reasoning behind the policy but wishes there was a middle ground that didn't involve taking phones away entirely. "My concern is my children's ability to reach me in an emergency, especially in light of the recent school shootings in the city and elsewhere," she said. "Parents' nerves are on edge because we are scared for our children and we want to feel accessible to them if they need us. There has to be some way to curb cell phone usage without locking them away in the pouches."

When a wave of hoax bomb threats hit local schools in March, "we saw a rise in parents not wanting to follow the policy," said Ms Colbert. "That is a space where there is some pushback and I understand that."

In addition to safety concerns, parents have become accustomed to communicating constantly with their children during the school day, said Ms Colbert, whether it's dismissal arrangements, hearing that a student forgot a sports uniform, or just to check in. The school has a landline in every classroom, she said, and is very willing to funnel communication through the front office. Students are also permitted to contact their parents during the day through email or Microsoft Teams.

"We have to help some parents break that bond just a little bit," she said.

Schools have made accommodations for students who need their phones for health reasons, such as those with diabetes who monitor blood glucose through an app on their phones.

Dai'Juan said his mother wasn't a fan of the policy because she often needs to contact him during the day to coordinate arrangements for his younger siblings. Autumn said her mom was actually hoping a group of parents would join together to fight the policy.

As for Autumn and Dai'Juan, they absolutely wish they could still use their phones in school. But they do reluctantly admit that there might be some educational benefits.

"I feel like I concentrate way more," said Autumn. "I get my work done and I still have a little free time left." – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Tribune News Service

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